Webb

Todd Webb (1905-2000), La Salle at Amsterdam St., New York, 1946, gelatin silver print; courtesy Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd.

Betty Boop was forced to give up mascara due to her incessant crying. When her creator died, all of his notebooks and journals were scrutinized, and those containing only minor characters were discarded. Mrs. Margaret Boop, Betty’s mother, was among them.

The overwhelming feeling of hollowness in Betty’s chest and abdomen made her fear that she might cave in. Nothing had prepared Betty to navigate the emotional black sea that now engulfed her. She tried to talk to the nameless men in dark suits and fedora hats who had always filled her world, but all they were interested in was Boop-Oop-a-Doop.

Betty had been a big star in the ‘30s, making over one hundred shorts — dramas, musicals, and comedies. She’d done it all but it was long gone. She needed to think. For the first time in her life, she sought anonymity. She traded in her garter belt for khakis and sweatshirts. No more lipstick, curling iron, or mascara. Swapping her chunky high heels for a pair of New Balance, she began taking long walks through the city that had seduced her 10 years earlier with all its coffee shops. Seattle had offered her endless discrete opportunities to be recognized and adored.

One day, at Pike Place Market, where gorgeous flowers are sold by beautiful Japanese women and fishmongers throw their wares over the heads of the tourists, she watched a jaunty salmon soar through the air and thought that if she’d gone there as a young cartoon she could have hefted her round boobs onto the scales. Their large eyes would have given her perspective as they flew over the crowd. The dollar-per-pound ratio would have been in her favor. It would have been useful — incredibly useful, she thought — if her headlights had shown the world for what it was, if she had understood how she was valued by the throng.

Betty continued on through the maze of Pike Market, ending up on a bar stool overlooking Puget Sound. While watching the busy boats coming and going she contemplated all those years since her real career ended — never really working, just being a celebrity, year after year of acting cute. It had seemed like a nice life. She’d loved the attention, despite the men leering at her cleavage or patting her bottom. Now it seemed ridiculous. What had really been so great? What had she done with the past 64 years of her life?

She thought about her friends and now saw differences, where before she’d only seen similarities. Barbie had always been so active. Betty’s wardrobe was limited by comparison. So what if the clothes wore well? Anything you’ve been wearing for over 50 years should go to Goodwill. Barbie had grown and changed — Energy Healer Barbie, CEO Barbie, and Trans Barbie — that woman had really explored her options. Geez, even Minnie Mouse, a married rodent, lived in a cute, colorful environment and had raised hundreds of children.

While sipping her virgin Cosmo she thought about her mom, who’d never gotten out of a man’s notebook. Her eyes misted and her memories took her way back. In ‘33 her film, Boilesque, had been banned. Those were wild days, but after the war things tapered off. Throughout the late ‘50s she’d pounded the pavement trying to get new gigs, but eventually she got used to just being adorable at different functions around the world. And watching a lot of TV. Why had those appearances been enough?

Betty hopped off her stool, having realized that she’d been brainwashed to think that admiration was worth more than engagement. Her mother had been tossed in the trash after a long life spent waiting for the next chapter that never came. It was time to take a boat ride to the islands, feel the cool wind, smell the saltwater, see the fabulous ink-drawn orcas that swam their lives to the fullest. Betty strode out, beginning to imagine quite a day. Possibilities were everywhere. As she passed a music store with a display of woodwinds she remembered her fascination for the licorice stick; she’d been quite a jazz clarinetist once, though on stage she’d preferred to sing because it was more intimate, with nothing between her and the audience but the clothes she wore and the burn of the lights. Singing was more like making love than making music. She could learn to make music again. It only takes practice, she thought. Practice and a swinging band. It could be swell. Or maybe she’d take up drawing, start her own notebooks. Why not? She wasn’t getting any older.